When Stu Hanssen was a little boy growing up in Paso Robles, his mom drove him to school in a hot rod. He remembers the shadows of oak trees flashing over the open seats — also, the time he accidentally hit the starter and bumped the car into the barn door. “I sure got a lickin’ for that,” he said. On weekends, his dad, Bill, raced the aluminum-bodied Baldwin Special on tracks in towns up and down Highway 101 against the greats of the time, such as Carroll Shelby, Phil Hill, and Ernie McAfee. This was the early 1950s, when American hot rodding had entered a postwar golden era and the Central Coast — especially Santa Barbara — was a nursing ground for young motorheads eager to prove their mettle.
Bill’s racing days ended abruptly in 1956 after he saw McAfee, a good friend, wrap his Ferrari around a pine tree at Pebble Beach; Bill had a young family to support. He sold the ’51 Baldwin Special, but he was tragically killed in a plane crash a few years later. Stu was 12 years old.
When he started racing in his early twenties, Stu Hanssen also began searching for his dad’s old car, priceless not only for its sentimental value but also as a piece of automotive history. Montecito resident and Cracker Jack heir Willis M. Baldwin, a former aircraft engineer with incredible technical expertise and a keen eye for design, built only a few of his namesake hot rods that would beat some of the fastest European sports cars. “I always wondered what happened to the darn thing,” Hanssen said. “I figured it ended up in junkyard.”
As luck would have it, in 2010, Stu received an email from the Baldwin Special’s owners in Connecticut; they’d never raced it much and heard he was looking to reclaim it. They negotiated a price — one of Hanssen’s own cars and some extra cash — and the Baldwin finally returned home. It was an emotional moment for Hanssen now 66 and living in Santa Ynez. “There’s no bringing him back,” he said of his late father. “But this feels full-circle. It brings a tear to your eye.” Before Hanssen’s mother passed away, he drove her around one last time. “God, it was something,” he said. This week, the Baldwin will head back to the starting line, this time with Stu Hanssen behind the wheel.
On Friday and Saturday, March 8 and 9, Santa Barbara will host a drag racing event on Cabrillo Boulevard. For a community that likes to play it safe and is quick to naysay new things, this qualifies as a very big deal. Even the zoo’s Princess Weekend had to be rescheduled due to the road closure.
Santa Barbara Drags, as it’s called, is a West Coast spinoff of The Race of Gentlemen (TROG), an annual gathering on the beaches of New Jersey that pays homage to the old days of classic hot-rodding. The competition specs are strict: Car bodies must be 1934 or older, and the engines must be American-made four-cylinder and V8 flatheads up to 1953. It’s gas-only (none of the alcohol or nitro that power more modern racers) and all running gear, paint, and tires have to be authentic to the era. The rules are similar for the motorcycles. The drivers themselves sometimes don a similar throwback aesthetic. Think greased hair and Ray-Bans.
Given their vintage, it’s doubtful any of the cars or bikes will go much faster than 60-65 miles per hour along the ⅛-mile course running west to east directly in front of the Hilton hotel. But it’s not about the speed, explained Mel Van Riper Stultz III, who started TROG back in 2012. “It’s about camaraderie and people coming together,” said Stultz, who hails from Asbury Park, New Jersey, near where the first Race of Gentlemen was held. Before he did this, he was a marine, a bowling alley bartender, a punk band drummer, and an interior designer, but oil has always run in his blood.
Over IPAs and shrimp cocktails out on the Brophy Bros. balcony, Stultz described the TROG philosophy as an admiration for the machines that were originally pieced together by men returning from World War II, who translated their experience maintaining tanks and fighter planes in the field to creating personal masterpieces in their garages. Back then, Stultz said, echoing a refrain usually dispensed by men twice his age, cars and choppers were built to last, and they were made with style. “I drool over things that are decades old,” he said. “Today, everything is streamlined and disposable.”
The race itself is mostly for fun. There’s no trophy at the finish line, just bragging rights among friends. Participants are coming from all over the U.S. and across the globe to admire the handiwork of their compatriots, Stultz said, and to “hear and smell history.” Period-perfect signs and props are being constructed by Santa Barbara artist Mike Matheson, and customs car and bike shows are scheduled over the weekend at the Hilton. It’s a platform for the young guys to learn from the old, Stultz went on, and to hear stories from those bygone years, like when races were traditionally held on the beach so if a car caught fire the driver could steer straight into the ocean.
Hurdles and Hopes
Getting the city to approve Santa Barbara Drags was no easy task. Stultz ran into skepticism among the public and outright hostility from some government leaders. They worried about the effects of closing Cabrillo for three days, the high decibels of unmuffled motors, and the sort of visitors the event might attract. Would the Hells Angels descend on State Street? Would the Mongols take over the bathhouse?
No, said Stultz. TROG has never tolerated gang activity, and the Santa Barbara race will be no different. He promised he and his team are extremely vigilant about keeping their venues clean and safe out of respect for their hosts and a desire to be invited back. “We don’t want this to be a one-time thing,” he said. “We want this to be a tradition that Santa Barbara can be proud of. We might have neck tattoos, but we care about people.”
In the end, it came down to cash. City Hall couldn’t resist the idea of 7,000 expected attendees each spending approximately $300 during their visit, not including what they’ll fork over for hotel rooms, and pumping life into a sluggish downtown. (Other estimates put the number of visitors at closer to 20,000.)
When Pismo Beach hosted The Race of Gentlemen in 2016, it sold out every one of its campgrounds and hotels. “They had no idea what they were getting themselves into,” said Stultz. As such, the doubters wonder if Stultz and his team will be able to pull off the Santa Barbara event without any major issues. Remember the West Beach Music & Arts Festival? they ask. Remember all the complaints over noise, litter, and unruly behavior? Stultz is determined to prove them wrong.
And he’s got the support of Santa Barbara’s old guard of racers excited to relive a bit of their glory days. Seth Hammond is among the biggest boosters. He’s donated a ton of the equipment and labor necessary to make the thing happen, including all 68 pieces of the K-rail that will line the two-lane course. Hammond is a legend in the ultra-elite world of land speed record chasers — in fact, all five members of the Hammond family have piloted rocket cars over 300 mph, including his wife and daughter — but for this race, he’s dusting off his ’27 Ford Roadster with a twin overhead cam. He said he was happy to contribute to the cause, alongside fellow gearheads at MarBorg, Granite Construction, and other area companies.
“All these guys are car guys,” Hammond explained. “This is our way of saying, ‘Welcome to Santa Barbara.’”
Hammond has been hooked on racing since he was a kid. He remembers riding his bike to what was then the El Camino Pharmacy across from the Montecito Inn, where he’d drink cherry Cokes and read Hot Rod Magazine right off the rack. Hammond, now in his seventies, counted among his mentors Fred Dannenfelzer and Lee Hammock, both in their eighties (or close to it) and event ticket-holders. “They influenced us youngsters,” he said. This weekend promises to be a blast, he went on, and a proper reminder of the days when Santa Barbara was a true racing mecca. “I’m going to have fun no matter what,” he said.
S.B.’s Need for Speed
Santa Barbara in the late 1940s possessed three perfect ingredients for a lively hot-rod scene: teenage car nuts, returning WWII veterans, and oil-field mechanics. Out of this mix grew car clubs and race tracks that drew droves of spectators and became the envy of gearheads all over the country.
The most famous of our venues was the Thunderbowl, a quarter-mile oval track located on an oceanside bluff just south of Carpinteria. Unknown to most Santa Barbarans these days, racers would also tear around an unpaved track on Salsipuedes Street next to what used to be a lemon packinghouse. And then there was the drag strip out at the city airport. The Santa Barbara Acceleration Association (SBAA), formed in 1948, turned an unused lifeguard tower into a timing stand connected to the finish line by telephone equipment left by the U.S. Marines, and voilà — the very first quarter-mile drag racing course in the United States.
These photos, reprinted with permission from author and automotive historian Tony Baker, capture a time in history when a handful of brave and brazen locals — many of whom are still alive today — turned hot-rodding into a source of family entertainment and regional pride for Santa Barbara County. Though their numbers are dwindling, the spark remains, and if Santa Barbara Drags is any indication, their legacy will continue to live on.
Baker grew up in Hollywood during the 1960s and has written six books about California’s hot-rod culture and motor sports history for Arcadia Publishing. He is also a contributing writer for Hot Rod Deluxe magazine and is a docent at the Murphy Auto Museum, where he his curating an exhibit about local racing legend Andy Granatelli. His book Hot Rodding in Santa Barbara County is available for purchase through Arcadia Publishing and at Chaucer’s Books. His new book, Southern California Road Racing, will be published this summer.
Santa Barbara Drags kicks off with a party on Friday, March 8, and hosts race day on Saturday, March 9, along Cabrillo Boulevard near the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort (633 E. Cabrillo Blvd.). Passes are $40 or $60 (includes pit pass), and kids under 10 get in free. No dogs or people under 18 are allowed in the pit area. See theraceofgentlemen.com/santa-barbara.